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Help needed: A tight, 2-3 paragraph reading on "The Commons"

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ProfessorPlum Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-18-04 12:22 PM
Original message
Help needed: A tight, 2-3 paragraph reading on "The Commons"
I'm involved in a scholarship competition and we are developing a topic for a debate/seminar. I would like it to be about the idea of "the commons", and how we are moving in a trend where all costs in our society are socialized, but all profits are privatized - where some individuals and companies grow rich, but all the costs are borne by all taxpayers.

For kids of this age (~18), even the idea of the "commons" and commonly held resources may be a bit foreign, so I need something that is very concise in laying it out.

I know I've read good essays on this subject, but after googling around a bit I can't find any of them.

Any suggestions? Thanks in advance for your help.
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LearnedHand Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-18-04 12:53 PM
Response to Original message
1. Can you be more specific?
I'm not familiar with the term, "the Commons," but I read tons of essays. Maybe I can help you, but I don't completely understand the topic you've suggested.
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ProfessorPlum Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-18-04 12:57 PM
Response to Reply #1
2. Thanks
Here's something I wrote about the subject, once, but I'm not enough of an authority (and this is obviously too politically slanted) for my purpose:


The root problem that we have in this country is there is a large number of our countrymen (and women) who have been trained to think that nothing should be held in common. There should be no public property, no parks, no publicly owned roads, no public healthcare system. Everything, _everything_, should be held privately, in their ultimate worldview. Think about that for a minute, and what kind of a horrible world it would be. Poor people would have absolutely no power or opportunity or recourse. The rich would have impunity to ignore any rules or law that they wanted to, since there would be no public court system. Power would coalesce around rich people, forming fiefdoms to direct the labor of the poor and the provision of protection from other rich warlords. In essence, we would slip into feudalism, and our situation would look something like the systems in Afghanistan or Somalia (there are two countries we definitely want to emulate).

When our society holds things in public, we are professing our belief that it isn't the person who has the most money who is always right, and that there are basic activities and privileges that all people can enjoy. Public institutions provide people a way to make phone calls (public phones), move from place to place (highways), have access to information (public libraries), have access to justice (the court system), have education (public schools). The health of our public institutions is a measure of what kind of life we would like for the least rich among us, and it is a measure of our humaneness as well. As you are probably aware, our many public institutions are not doing well these days, and are under attack from the massive and powerful forces of privatization. This is often sold to us as consumer choice. Why should we bother keeping public phones working? Most of us have our own cell phones, now, anyway. Why should we bother providing public libraries? There are book stores and video rental stores in abundance, and after all nearly everyone has their own connection to the internet, right? Why should poor people be allowed to sue big corporations? There should be caps on the awards they can get. Why bother to save public schools? There are plenty of good private schools (many of which will indoctrinate kids in our unofficial, official state religion, too, so that is an added bonus). The problem is, what happens when people can't afford internet access, cell phones, private schools, etc.?

The view that nothing is really held in common has been extending to the airwaves for years now. Long ago, when the legislature realized that broadcast rights were a huge money making concession, companies were charged relatively large fees to use them, which they always recouped and then some. As the broadcasting companies grew more and more powerful, and their lobbying grew more powerful with them, fees for use of the public airwaves grew smaller and smaller. Today, they are "auctioned" away for a pittance, provided nearly free of charge to large, extremely rich corporations which use them to get richer. And a small amount of that money is funneled back into election campaigns for people who will keep the system the way it is.

Public ownership of the airwaves used to imply something else, as well. Before the term of Ronald Reagan, there used to be something called the Fairness Doctrine, which stated that as public services, broadcast outlets had to provide a diversity of views. The Fairness Doctrine dictated that when an editorial position was presented on public airwaves, equal time had to be given to an opposing viewpoint. Conservatives actually used to defend the Fairness Doctrine vigorously, because it served their interests as well. During Reagan's term, the Fairness Doctrine was quietly chloroformed. Increasing media owernship consolidation, sped along by the egregious telecommunications act of 1996, signed by Clinton, has led us to the point where we are today, awash in an electronic sea of big-business-friendly propaganda. And so it is no surprise that we are being led by the most big-business friendly faction of the most big-business friendly party, even if they did have to steal an election to get there. And our big-business friendly media says hardly a peep.

We are in a chicken and egg conundrum now. We need the idea of the good of the commons to permeate our public discourse, so that we may restore the Fairness Doctrine and begin to regain some semblance of balance. But without the Fairness Doctrine, public discussions of the commons are strangled in their crib. And it doesn't look like things are getting better any time soon.

The restoration of the Fairness Doctrine needs to be our number one job, and I hope our leaders begin to address it soon. The corporate cabal running things now knows that its governing principles would not stand up to scrutiny or public debate, but it also knows that they don't have to -they only need to win, not be right. On June 2nd, the FCC under corporate shill Michael Powell will vote to remove one of the last major obstacles to total media ownership concentration. The current rules make it illegal for a company to have a major newspaper and radio presence in a city at the same time. Removal of this rule will be one of the final coffin nails in meaningful public debate. Contact your representatives and let them know that you appreciate a few checks on corporate propaganda, thank you, and that Powell's scheme is both reckless and unnecessary.
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Donating Member (2 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-18-04 01:00 PM
Response to Original message
3. Commons
Surely you are aware of the classical statement: "The Tragedy of the Commons" by Garrett Hardin. (Science, Dec. 13, 1968). I think you will find the few paragraphs you need following the heading: "Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons."

If you will pardon the immodesty, you might find what you are looking for in Section III of my forthcoming paper, "With Liberty for Some." Available at: See also my "Privatized Hell" -- about halfway through: .

Permission is hereby given for your use of my pieces (though not really necessary -- education is "fair use"). Let me know how it works out.

Ernest Partridge
"The Online Gadfly"
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ProfessorPlum Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-18-04 03:28 PM
Response to Reply #3
10. That is really fantastic writing
Thank you, Ernest
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newyawker99 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-18-04 07:02 PM
Response to Reply #3
11. Hi gadfly!!
Welcome to DU!! :toast:
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yowzayowzayowza Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-18-04 01:15 PM
Response to Original message
4. Good stuff...
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kodi Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-18-04 01:19 PM
Response to Original message
5. i just posted this elsewhere on du, use it or not
"Government doesn't create wealth," Mr. Bush said. "The role of government is to create the kind of conditions where risk-takers and entrepreneurs can invest and grow and hire new workers."

WASHINGTON, Oct. 9 Visiting the only Northeastern state he carried in 2000, President Bush campaigned today in New Hampshire, calling for lower federal taxes and continued vigilance against terrorism.

That statement by Bush is in a nutshell the philosophy of the modern conservative. It is fundamentally superficial and inefficient, but it enlightens one towards understanding them and combating their philosophy and rhetoric.

"The normal and proper aim of the corporate community is to make money for its managers and for the owners of business all the better if its members also contribute to the general prosperity. However, business acts on the prevailing business philosophy, which claims that corporate self-interest eventually produces the general interest. This comfortable belief rests on misinterpretation of the theory of market rationality proposed by Adam Smith.

"He would have found the market primitivism of the current day unrecognizable. He saw the necessity for public intervention to create or sustain the public interest, and took for granted the existence of a government responsible to the community as a whole, providing the structure within which the economy functions.

"Classical political thought says that the purpose of government is to do justice for its citizens. Part of this obligation is to foster conditions in which wealth is produced. The obligation is not met by substituting the wealth-producer for the government.

"Business looks after the interests of businessmen and corporation stockholders. Stark and selfish self-interest obviously is not what motivates most American businessmen and -women, but it is the doctrine of the contemporary corporation and of the modern American business school."

"It does not automatically serve the general interest, as any 18th century rationalist would acknowledge - or any 21st century realist."

William Pfaff
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Jackpine Radical Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-18-04 01:20 PM
Response to Original message
6. This may not be exactly on-target,
but check out "natural capitalism" and the Rocky Mountain Institute.
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ProfessorPlum Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-18-04 03:04 PM
Response to Original message
7. Thank you all
Good stuff.
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cschultz671 Donating Member (6 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-18-04 03:15 PM
Response to Reply #7
8. Tragedy of the Anti-Commons
You also might check out a short piece from a few years back on the tragedy of the anti-commons by Beck Eisenberg and Michael Heller at

That article deals specifically with biomedical research. I am not sure what aspect of the "commons" you are after.
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ProfessorPlum Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-18-04 03:22 PM
Response to Reply #8
9. Thanks
I also have the updated "tragedy of the commons" issue from Science, 2003, which is quite good.

I'm less concerned with the environment per se, though that makes a good argument too, than I am with just the general deterioration of public institutions - public phones provide a common illustration - public libraries - public transport - social security. In other words, those services that a society pays to its poorest members, even if they are penniless. If you had no money, you could still check out a book at the public library. But the range of activities, and benefits, to you are becoming less and less.

For example, a penniless person still has (in theory) police protection, and legal representation. But for how long?
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newyawker99 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-18-04 07:03 PM
Response to Reply #8
12. Hi cschultz671!!
Welcome to DU!! :toast:
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